n.e.w.s. is a collective online platform for the analysis and development of art-related activity, drawing upon contributions from around the globe, bringing together different voices, accents and outlooks from the North, East, West and South. | Read more..

After the launch in Singapore, part 1: slow n.e.w.s.


It’s been a few weeks since the launch of n.e.w.s. in Singapore at the end of last July, and I’ve been meaning to write a short report to n.e.w.s. contributors and readers about some of the discussions those of us in Singapore had following the launch. But, as it often happens, after the one thing, there are the next several things, and you get very busy, and before you know it, weeks have passed by, and you’re still trying to follow-up ...

This blog entry is rather tardy, but that’s kind of my point. One of the things that I spoke about at the launch event (I was the evening’s moderator, in case you’ve just started reading these blog entries) was my hope for what n.e.w.s. could do — of course, n.e.w.s. should be many things to many people. But for me, in particular, if I had to ask for one thing, it would be that it could help its contributors, participants, stakeholders, what have you, slow things down — or, rather, that it could somehow give us a bit more time. I don’t think this is a problem peculiar to people in the arts. “Modern Living” — isn’t that the name of some lifestyle magazine — is life lived in a hurry, and no where is this more evident than in Singapore.

The n.e.w.s. launch took place at The Substation arts centre. Next to us is a giant orifice. You can hear a rumbling, sucking sound emanating from it. Or is that just road traffic? Officially, it’s known as the Fort Canning Tunnel. I’m not going to speculate how many seconds one saves driving through it, or debate whether it was worth the several million to build, or worth tearing down the old National Library for — that last one should be a no brainer. There were several protestations to save the building, which was deemed architecturally insignificant, even as many persons felt it was more than just bricks; it was a repository of social memories. No, it had to go. The authorities wanted their tunnel. And slick and neat as it is, it’s easy to imagine life going on perfectly well without it. But it’ here now, and there’s no turning back.

By design, tunnels function as short cuts. A mountain in the way? No problem, let’s drill a hole through it. Now, my default position isn’t necessarily the sentimental one. I don’t always value the scenic, narrow windy road over a straight, no-nonsense tunnel. However, in Singapore, of all places, the efficiency of the Tunnel — and the symbolism of this — must be viewed with some critical perspective.

Ever since I began working at The Substation, my aspiration has been for us to act as the opposite of a catalyst (as in a reagent that speeds up a reaction). If we are to support the arts, then I thought we might do so by slowing things down, rather than joining the rush to be part of the next trend. Art does many things, has many social functions, but among them is to provoke contemplation, reflection and questioning — and you can’t do that when you’re in a hurry. While there’s no formula for “good” art, I can’t think of an artwork that I admire which doesn’t demand a second look and more. Good art asks for time, for experience; it privileges the slow journey, or sometimes the distracted one, just meandering along, paying attention to nothing in particular, until you see something familiar, but really see it for the first time. In that sense, good art is like the antithesis of trying to get from point A to point B as fast and efficiently as one can.

How n.e.w.s. might help in this endeavour — of giving us extra time — I’m not exactly sure. Another way of thinking about this is how n.e.w.s. can be a tool, not to help us be more busy, to network more efficiently, or to help us do “more”. If n.e.w.s. is just another forum for curators to discuss and debate, even to learn about new art from around the world, then I don’t think that is enough. For if n.e.w.s. is to be a tool, then it should change, even if slightly, the way we do things, the way we talk about art, the way we connect with each other.

In my corner of the planet, Southeast Asia, we have so much trouble talking in-depth when we talk in public. I’ve heard many a colleague lament how too often there is only the superficial presentation or re-presentation of many diverse themes and issues in our conferences and symposia. We never get into detail or debate. There seems a collective mistrust of specialisation, of pursuing an idea rigourously. It’s as if what’s most important in the convening of public forums is the inclusion of different opinions, and at the expense of really engaging a topic, argument or interpretation of a work of art.

But the solution is not just simply to develop greater expertise — because, in places like Singapore, the way we address that problem is merely to accumulate. Within the region we are publishing more and more about our own contemporary art, but one has to question if we are really reading each other, or whether most of this textual production is not just mediocre verbiage. But among all this, there is indeed stuff worth re-reading; it’s just not getting read, even in the first place. What’s at stake is the distribution of knowledge and creating access to it, and the problems we in Southeast Asia have with “talking art” require that we rethink how we meet and convene, how we write and share ideas.

I hope that n.e.w.s. can help in that regard.